Monday, July 6, 2009

Raggedy Ann Heart, by Heather McPhaul

Raggedy Ann Heart, by Heather McPhaul
ISBN: 1-4196-8627-5
Released: 2008

Author Heather McPhaul has crafted a charming coming of age tale in her debut novel ‘Raggedy Ann Heart’, about a family struggling to get by in rural West Texas in the 70s.

Twelve year old Lindy Logan’s life is one long uphill struggle- she is a figure of ridicule at school, and greatly overshadowed at home by her pretty kid sister, Jo, who seems to have all their mother’s attention. Their penury is a source of constant embarrassment to her, and the reason she has to toil on her father’s farm. Meanwhile, puberty strikes and Lindy is horrified both at her changing body and the thoughts in her head that she is convinced make her a bad girl. Lindy’s charismatic Momma has watched her own dreams of stardom turn to dust, and struggles to adjust to a life of menial work and frugality. Her two daughters, as alike as chalk and cheese, constantly battle for her attention. Then tragedy strikes, and Momma and the girls are forced to re-examine their lives, and resolve their issues with each other.

The characters of this book are an interesting and complex lot – Lindy, with her fixation on TV sitcoms, and near obsessive hand washing; Jo, with her pretty face, her imaginary friends and her surprising reputation as a fierce fighter (Jo the Finisher) at school. Also Momma, a mercurial woman, struggling to reconcile her dreams with the life she is forced to lead. She is often shallow and thoughtless, and faces petty social prejudice from the women in the community, yet has the strength to offer support to one of them when they fall from grace. It takes the shadow of illness over her life for her to learn to value it.

I enjoyed this novel, and its poignant depiction of a troubled mother- daughter relationship. McPhaul narrates the exploits of this dysfunctional family with gentle humour and gives the reader a peek into the difficult, often terrifying, world of a twelve year old. Lindy reminded me in some ways of perhaps the most famous tortured teen in contemporary fiction– Adrian Mole. Much like him, Lindy is a shy introvert who unerringly lands herself in excruciatingly embarrassing situations, yet - through her sharp observations of her friends and relatives, in her disappointing encounter with the boy she fancies, in her final comprehension of her sister’s imaginary world- reveals a maturity far beyond her years.

Despite the humour, Lindy’s struggles to get her mother’s attention are still very touching, especially as her Momma’s own responses are far from kind, often echoing her own rejection by the women she has hoped to befriend. A photograph at the end of this book suggests that the author may have lived in West Texas herself as a girl, and the book may be part autobiographical. This would explain the detail with which she has captured life and people in the little community that this story is set in.

This is a story with strong female characters; by contrast, the men in the book are at best peripheral. Lindy’s father , for example, never draws the girls’ attention (or the readers') the way Momma does. He remains a character of contradictions, a man of literate interests who clearly is out of his element as a farmer, yet puts the family through hardship in his attempts at growing cotton. By the end, he seems to recede in the girls’ lives as a tragic figure , distanced emotionally and physically from them.

While the pace of the book is rather slow with an overly long first half, it builds up well to an end that is far from picture perfect, yet uplifting. A good read for teenagers and adults alike, about love, family and the tribulations of growing up.

'Raggedy Ann Heart' qualified as a finalist in Young Adult Fiction for the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards and Indie Excellence Awards.

Thanks to Heather McPhaul for sending Bookblah a copy of the book to review.

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